Where There’s Smoke, There’s….

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A view from space of the Camp Fire that has caused hazardous air quality for much of the Bay Area. NASA/FLICKR

In Oct. 2017, there were fires raging throughout California. USF promptly cancelled classes on the Friday prior to fall break due to the smoke in the air. We received an email telling us that classes were cancelled without ever having to make a fuss about it.

Last week, we were in a situation where the air quality was even more toxic, with an Air Quality Index (AQI) of over 180. And yet, rather than responding as quickly as they did last year, the administration sent out an email just before noon on Nov. 15 stating that classes weren’t cancelled. They also attempted to rationalize continuing classes despite the worsening AQI and concerns of students. It took an AQI of over 200 (considered “very unhealthy” by the EPA),  parents calling and students making their voices heard — mainly through a petition that was signed by over 10,000 — to push the administration to finally cancel classes.

The Foghorn is united in stating that the administration took a dangerously long time to respond appropriately to the poor air quality.

This was a health hazard, and, when it comes to people’s health, you don’t take any chances. USF is responsible for the safety of its students. The AQI was clearly on its way to reaching dangerous levels. Although the AQI was below 200 when Provost Donald Heller sent his original email on Nov. 15, it was a certainty that the air would worsen before the end of the day, according to projections by the EPA. Every hour that USF didn’t cancel classes was an hour students could have spent trying to take care of themselves and stay safe.

Everyone was at risk due to the smoke, but there are students who were more vulnerable than others — and the administration’s slow response hurt them especially. Those with respiratory issues, such as asthma, were forced to miss out on learning because they were severely impacted by the air quality, which potentially hurt their grades. The University has a responsibility to be attentive to their needs. It is hard in general to be a college student who suffers from health problems that can affect your academics, and situations like the fire make it even harder.

It is vital that the school sees its students’ safety as its most vital responsibility.

However, it seems the administration’s priorities were elsewhere. We don’t know what their exact priorities were, but in our view, it was not the safety of their students.

The Foghorn acknowledges that shutting down campus is a big deal and requires immense preparation. However, the administration should have cancelled classes when they saw that other schools, like San Francisco State University, had done so. SF State had to face the same preparations that we did for shutting down, but they were responsive to the fires in a way that USF was not.

The events of this week require self-reflection from the University administration. This was handled extremely poorly. What was it that made the response time so slow in comparison to last year? We do not work for the administration at the University, so we don’t know exactly what changes are needed. However, we firmly believe that USF should review their response to emergencies.

USF students banded together to get the administration to do the right thing and close the campus down. However, should they have had to? The administration had access to San Francisco’s air quality reports just as we did — but it apparently took them more time to recognize that you shouldn’t have your students, faculty and staff walking around in toxic air.

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